Feb 022014
 

The roots of my course plan revision reach back to the classroom wiki project I began creating last May. As part of my early preparations for this project, I created a personal wiki to experiment with the software I’d be using and decided to populate it with course materials to get it started quickly. This got me thinking about how planning a course in my Tinderbox template was different from what course planning would look like on a wiki.

Now, it was obvious almost immediately that the wiki was too limited to do any actual course planning. But at the same time there were two real and enormous benefits that I could see in a wiki-based approach. First, the wiki forced me to focus on texts and how pieces of text lead me to other (or new) materials. Second, the wiki nurtured a mild but generative confusion as I worked. Both of these seemed worth importing back into my Tinderbox template.

So, in this post, I’ll explain how I’m rearranging my template to shift my focus to the text of my notes, and in my next, I’ll explain how (and why) I’m “breaking” my template enough to let in some confusion.

The Problem of Title-Notes

Because I worked in outline and map views in my original course planning template, many of my notes consisted of little more than the title attribute (plus whatever attributes or copy-pasted text I used to catch them later with agents). These titles needed to be short enough to be viewed on a single line or within a reasonably sized box. They were also largely static.

In practice, the titles of empty notes named or described content (lecture notes, exercises instructions, etc.) stored outside my template, often as a keynote or word processing file. Generally but not always, I linked to that external file from my note. Generally but not always, I copy-pasted the content of that file to the note on the day I taught so that it would be included in the Nakajoki view printout I brought to class.

Notes as Titles

Dig down into map view and you find a bunch of empty notes.

Notes in my Wiki

In my wiki, things worked very differently. There were no map or outline views, and page-note titles were displaced to the top of my browser window. I was forced to deal with the actual content of pages and found this confrontation with the imperfect messy details of my work inspiring.

I also found that depending on links to navigate created a pressure to state ideas and information rather than merely to name them. In principle, blank pages in the wiki were the same as blank title-notes on my outline or map views, but in practice they were not. I needed note texts with links to navigate from page to page on the wiki. A blank page was a dead-end in a way an empty note wasn’t in map or outline view. The way past these dead-ends was to add content and links, even if only provisionally, so that the blank obstacle opened up and gave me a way to move on to the rest of my materials.

Living in note texts and making them lead one to the other through links pushed me to bring materials into existence and toward maturity in a way I hadn’t been pushed to do in my original course template.

Creating “Wiki View” in Tinderbox

A primary goal of my template revision has been to create a similar immersion in note texts and a similar link-driven push to develop materials in Tinderbox. To do this, I set my old template aside, created a new file, and:

  1. switched my preferences to hide the sidebar;
  2. created a first note called home in the initial outline view and opened it;
  3. closed the initial outline view;
  4. worked out from the home page, creating and writing new notes as I need them.

This set-up recreated my wiki experience. Note titles, which were central in my original template, were here displaced to the title bar, and my note text was pushed front-and-centre. As I write material, I added links to new notes, and used these links to navigate.

Wiki View

My “Wiki View”

But It’s a Tinderbox Wiki

This set-up is not, however, simply recreation of my wiki experience. It also improves on it in two ways.

First, links in my new template open in a new window. Some might find this annoying (and tabs are coming to Tinderbox) but without the sidebars, the note window is very compact and I like seeing and working on multiple related notes simultaneously. (Multiple windows also makes linking pieces of text to other notes very easy.) More importantly, open windows can be arranged on my desktop as an ad hoc map view but with one great benefit over a regular Tinderbox map: my note texts on this map are both visible and editable.

Second, because of how Tinderbox is built, this new way of working can operate alongside all of the course planning strategies I used in my previous template. My workspace has been expanded–an entirely new “ground level” space has been created underneath the eye-in-the-sky map views–but those map views are only a hotkey way. When I’m ready to do so, all of the notes I create in wiki view can be organized into semester schedules and content groupings just as I did in the past. Which is incredible.

(What’s even more incredible is that, although I’m working in a completely new and better way, I get the sense that, if it talked, Tinderbox would say “well of course you can do that” as if it had been designed to do exactly this new thing and had been waiting all along for me to realize it.)

Next up, how I’m cultivating a bit of confusion

 February 2, 2014  Hypertext, Teaching Tagged with: , , ,
Jan 302014
 

My second stab at using a classroom wiki has launched. It’s going well so far: everyone has posted a profile and is figuring out how to use the basic mark-up.

Something that caught me off guard last time was the peculiar mix of ignorance and familiarity most students bring to an internet-based project and which tends to block them early on. This time around I have redesigned the pages providing general course materials so that they serve as models students can use when creating pages of their own. Obvious, but I didn’t think of it last time. More on the project later in the term.

As I have been getting students up and running on that site, the pipeline of posts I’d prepared on my course planning revisions has run dry. I’m working on the rest now, and they should start up again this weekend.

 January 30, 2014  Hypertext, Teaching Tagged with: , ,
Nov 162013
 

My biggest problems with the wiki project to date have arisen because students don’t read what’s on their screen or pay attention to system prompts. They are used to web-pages that either do nothing or have been designed to just take them along for the ride. When they want something to happen they start clicking buttons–seemingly at random and without waiting even a moment to see what their click did–expecting apparently that if they click enough or in the right place the site will eventually do what they want. But it doesn’t and the carelessness wrecks havoc!

In the worst cases, they erase other students’ work or lose their own. (And they don’t save work in intermediate steps. I don’t understand. Who doesn’t save work?!?) They also don’t pay attention to where they are on the site or adjust to context, and so for example, they lose formatting by cutting and pasting from a display screen to an edit screen. (There’s no markup on the display and the bold, bulleting, etc. they see there disappears in the plain text editor. They respond by clicking randomly and by the time help arrives they’ve erased their tracks badly enough that they have to start the mark-up all over again.)

Teaching attention and carefulness is hard because they are about habits not knowledge.

 

 November 16, 2013  Hypertext, Teaching Tagged with:
Nov 152013
 

The wiki project is off to a solid start, and students seem to like it. My fears about basic site maintenance–can I run the tech for this project on my own?–have also faded. Things are stable and work. That said, my initial goals for the project have been radically revised: what I imagined this project would be about is not what I’m dealing with and so my goals and what I’m trying to teach are changing. Fast.

Linking as Literacy

The most substantial change is in my literacy goals. As it turns out, markup and the distinction between content and formatting is not difficult. Linking is. Creating links (as opposed to following them) requires working at a level of abstraction that is quite difficult for my students to handle. You must hold bits of text in your head, juggle them, and always read (and write) with an ear turned to hear echoes of other things that you could search for and link to. Or at least, you need to see places that ought to link to something and mark them with a link, even if that link is just pointing to a blank page in the wiki for the moment.

Linking also invites confusion. Links can be arranged as a kind of file hierarchy that duplicates a finder or explorer structure. Which is fine and some of my students have fallen back on this strategy. But links can also (more profitably?) be arranged in a web that resembles, when things go wrong, a knot or, when things go right, a line thrown blindly out into the darkness that you hope will grab something useful on the other end. Building a webbed structure requires faith in the process, faith in the idea that good work connected link-by-link will slowly develop into something useful and insightful in the end. But that kind of faith is hard for overworked students to muster. They don’t want to waste their time. And of course: are the links graded?

From Revision to Note-taking

Linking now seems more important to me than revision. I would like students to learn both to make links and to “make links.” And so, I have shifted my expectations and have adjusted the assigned work. I am now encouraging students to take notes on the wiki rather than to create finished texts there. I want this note-taking to be experimental, personal, idiosyncratic; I want it to be a process where they notice, collect and select info and then mark its importance by formatting and arranging it and by drawing links between their various collected tidbits. In order to allow them to experiment in private, I have set up a private group space for each student where they can post pages that only they can access. It was laborious to do but worth it.

Annotations

A principal assignment for the wiki is now going to be an annotation of a poem. I will assign everyone a poem. They post it correctly formatted and then add explanatory and interpretative annotations as footnotes. These annotations will be sourced and will connect to additional resources on the wiki or the web. It’s a new kind of task. I’ve never done it before and it is only possible online.

What I like about it is that it encompasses both aspects of the course content: literary analysis through close reading and hypertextual, online writing. In this, it moves completely beyond my initial conception of the project, which was mostly just a repackaging of my normal class as an online activity. With this assignment, the wiki project creates something new and useful that changes how I teach my course.

Surprisingly, I’ve had only one major problem so far this term.

 November 15, 2013  Hypertext, Teaching Tagged with: ,
Aug 222013
 

After two years, this blog project and the personal wiki that grew from it have born something other than private fruit: I have installed pmwiki on a server and will use it to run a large-scale class project this coming semester. The course will be a basic college literature course. Because the course is for non-majors, composition and writing skills are an important aspect of the curriculum and are the basis for the project.

My Initial Goals

These are quite small. I hope to:

  • naturalize the process of revision in composition by setting it beside the constant development and change of online materials;
  • to offer students some sense that they are writing to communicate to an audience rather than writing assignments for me to grade;
  • teach basic web literacy, which here means a familiarity with content/format separation and the use of markup syntax.

An Observation About these Goals

Only the last of these is specifically about teaching composition as transformed by the internet. The others are really about using the Internet to spice up or interpret established course material. This is something to track over the term because web-composition would be worth addressing more substantially. But doing that this first go around just seems like too much to bite off all at the same time. I mean, this will also be the first time that I manage a class project where every aspect of the tech–the server, the installation, basic site management, the tech-help for students, everything–will be done by me. And I’ll be doing it as I teach the course. So web-composition: track, keep notes, and maybe next time.

One Last Thought

Increasingly students read about assigned texts online rather than reading the text itself. Those who do must later rely on internet sources for the content of the essays, and so, plagiarism is becoming a huge problem. I explain every semester that reading texts is required and that copying text off the internet is not acceptable but I hear Peppermint Patty’s teacher’s voice in my head as I do. I say, “Read! It’s worth it!” and I suspect students hear “All teachers hate the internet. You should waste time doing pointless busy work because back in the day, uphill both ways, carrying a log for the fire, etc.”

My pie-in-the-sky hope is that the wiki project will elicit some buy-in to the course materials by:

  • acknowledging online materials exist and are often useful;
  • providing a forum for these materials to be cited, linked to and discussed;
  • teaching and demanding some technical engagement with web-based writing (i.e. teaching students to write in ways that make the web rather than simply use it);
  • demonstrating that discourse is about norms rather than rules by having two different written discourses developing in class: one online in the wiki, the other offline through traditional essays.

More to come…

 

 August 22, 2013  Hypertext, Teaching Tagged with: ,